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Essay: Adapting Shakespeare

"Triumph, my Britain, thou hast one to show
To Whom all scenes of Europe homage owe.
He was not of an age, but for all time!"

Thus wrote playwright and poet Ben Jonson in 1623 of his greatest rival, William Shakespeare -- words that still hold true for most critics today. The timelessness of Shakespeare's themes continue to keep his plays fresh. He dramatized basic issues: love, marriage, familial relationships, gender roles, race, age, class, humor, illness, deception, betrayal, evil, revenge, murder, and death. He created unforgettable characters, from lowly thieves to lofty kings, who have become archetypes of modern drama, but remain people we can relate to. "The most admirable people can be flawed," director Trevor Nunn notes in an interview "while the most despicable people can be redeemed by elements that allow us to understand them."

Othello and The Merchant of Venice are ideal examples of Shakespeare's classic tales that students can still relate to. Othello, Desdemona, and Iago play out a drama of race, love, passion, deception, and betrayal as relevant today as in the 17th century. Othello's ill treatment by a racist society and his internalized self-doubt continue to resonate in today's turbulent culture, both in fiction and life (as is evident in Masterpiece Theatre's modern adaptation). Othello's story transcends the color of his skin: it's the concept of the other that Shakespeare writes about, the mistrust of differences that is present in all societies. Desdemona's wifely loyalty, and the physical abuse she withstands at the hand of her jealous husband, are issues that make up today's news. And Iago's envy and treachery still echo in competitive scenarios, from high school elections to government coups.

The Merchant of Venice also presents scenarios that are instantly recognizable today. Portia and Jessica must transcend limitations placed by their fathers on their choice of husbands by using their wits. Antonio shows his love by borrowing money to help him win Portia's hand. And Shylock, the Jewish moneylender -- and "other" -- living amidst rampant anti-Semitism, is vilified and ultimately punished by Christians. Shakespeare presents Shylock harshly, but also allows him to speak eloquently on his own behalf, perhaps the first time a European playwright afforded a Jewish character such a podium. Audiences and critics have puzzled over Shylock for centuries: Is Shakespeare's portrayal anti-Semitic or sympathetic?

From Stage to Television
Shakespeare has been presented in myriad versions, from the traditional to the almost unrecognizable. England's Royal Shakespeare Company has presented both true-to-book Elizabethan-era productions as well modern versions, including a 1986 Romeo and Juliet featuring sports cars, swimming pools, and hypodermic needles. Ben Donenberg's Starship Shakespeare, produced in Los Angeles in 1985, offered Shakespearean characters fighting for control of a starship. Staged musical adaptations include Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story (also made into a movie), with rival street gangs as the warring families of Romeo and Juliet, as well as Prokofiev's 1940 ballet. George Bernard Shaw once said, "Othello is a play written by Shakespeare in the style of Italian opera." There have been many operas made from Shakespeare plays.

Shakespeare wrote for the masses, much like television writers. In the early days of TV, Shakespeare plays were seen on many drama series. Perhaps due to his reputation as "intellectual" or "high culture," today Shakespeare plays are seen only occasionally on TV and are now mostly represented by cultural references in sitcoms, cartoons, and science fiction such as Star Trek. In an ironic turn, Patrick Stewart, a well-respected British Shakespearean actor who played Captain Jean-Luc Picard in the Star Trek: The Next Generation series, makes several Shakespearean references in some of the episodes.

At the Movies
Douglas Brode notes in his book, Shakespeare in the Movies, "[Shakespeare's plays] aren't plays at all; rather, they are screenplays, written, ironically, three centuries before the birth of cinema." Shakespeare was first adapted to the movie screen in 1899, when King John was filmed as a four-minute movie. The first Hamlet on screen was played in 1900 by Sarah Bernhardt (in a gender twist that perhaps Shakespeare himself would have enjoyed), with knives clacking behind the screen to create dueling sounds. A highly regarded 1920 Hamlet, by German director Svend Gade, presented the title character as a girl raised as a boy, one of the first complete reinterpretations of Shakespeare.

With the advent of sound came a 1929 production of The Taming of the Shrew. Stars Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks act up a storm, at one point attacking each other with whips. Two famous productions in 1948 have generally been regarded as influential but flawed: Olivier's Hamlet, somewhat heavy-handed and confused in intention, and Orson Welles' Macbeth, with a dreary set design and undistinguishable Scottish brogues. Yet Olivier's Richard III and Welles' Othello, both produced in the 1950s, are considered some of the best and most innovative film adaptations ever made.

Peter Hall's 1968 A Midsummer Night's Dream included mini-skirts and Beatle wigs. (Judi Dench, as Titania, wears no costume at all except for green body paint.) Tony Richardson's 1969 Hamlet emphasized the generation gap. Franco Zeffirelli's 1968 Romeo and Juliet featured unknown young actors; his earlier The Taming of the Shrew starred the famously volatile couple Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. In the 1970s Roman Polanski's penchant for menace and violence was evident in a rough Macbeth.

Kenneth Branagh kindled a resurgence of popular interest in Shakespeare in the late 1980s with Henry V, which portrayed the battlefield as squalid, gory, and decidedly unglamorous. The 1980s also saw Ran, an Asian version of King Lear, by highly-regarded Japanese director Akira Kurosawa.

In the 1990s Zeffirelli made Mel Gibson's title character in Hamlet the Oedipal hero of a thriller. Branagh, after a lighthearted Much Ado About Nothing in 1993, set his version of Hamlet in the late 1800 focused on revenge. Remaining faithful to the original script in its entirety, Branagh's 242-minute film is the longest English-language film ever. At the end of the decade, Ethan Hawke created yet another Hamlet, set in modern-day New York. Shakespeare's renewed popularity drew top box office stars such as Michelle Pfeiffer to a 1999 A Midsummer Night's Dream. Baz Luhrmann's raucous William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, set in modern-day Miami, featured rising teen stars Leonardo diCaprio and Claire Danes.

Shakespeare has also inspired several recent films. Al Pacino explored Richard III in his 1996 documentary Looking for Richard. In 1998 Shakespeare in Love, a comedy starring Gwyneth Paltrow, won seven Academy Awards, including best picture. The same year, Julia Stiles and Heath Ledger starred in 10 Things I Hate about You, a modern teen version of The Taming of the Shrew. Continuing that trend was Get Over It in 2001, based on A Midsummer Night's Dream. The upcoming O, a teen version of Othello, plays out its drama on the basketball court.

Traditional or Not?
Directors and actors have adapted Shakespeare as long as his plays have been performed. Some feel that without Shakespeare's original poetry, audiences are robbed of the opportunity to experience the cleverness, poetry, and majesty of the language -- Shakespeare's genius. Others feel that modern adaptations don't challenge viewers and offer weaker plots and less complex characters.

Yet adaptations often offer a commentary on the times in which they were produced. Changes in language, setting, and costume help place the production in a particular time or style. The variety of adaptations certainly increases our ability to understand and appreciate Shakespeare. For example, the contemporary language and setting of Masterpiece Theatre's Othello is a compelling and relevant statement on racial tensions today; the pre-World War II setting of Masterpiece Theatre's The Merchant of Venice puts the play into a fascinating historical focus. Adaptations continue to allow new audiences to be drawn in by Shakespeare's characters and themes. "The trick is," director Trevor Nunn says in an interview about The Merchant of Venice, "to make a completely new piece of work while preserving the original piece of work."

Teacher's Guide:
Teaching The Merchant of Venice and Othello
The Merchant of Venice: Plot Summary | Before Viewing
Othello: Plot Summary | Adapting Shakespeare
Adapting Shakespeare: Activities | On Race and Religion
On Race and Religion: Activities | The Filmmaker's Vision
Resources | Order the Teacher's Guide

Essays + Interviews | Shakespeare + More | Who's Who
Drama to Film | Story Synopsis | Russell Baker
Teacher's Guide | The Forum | Links and Bibliography

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